Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu, Architecture of Language 1979-1982

Starting in the mid-‘70s Pere Ubu conjured up a few of rock history’s truly gripping moments amid an unusually high standard of quality; the immediate results were critical acclaim and modest sales figures, with cult status developing later. Similar scenarios have broken or severely damaged other outfits, but for their first seven years they simply created at a steady clip. Architecture of Language 1979-1982 is Fire Records’ second Ubu volume; including four LPs, it begins with ’79’s brilliant New Picnic Time, continues through the subsequent pair of albums to the band’s ’80s hiatus and is capped with a worthy compilation disc. It’s out March 18.

Cleveland’s Pere Ubu began an unpredictable existence with a riveting spurt of independently released singles. Now revered, they garnered enough initial attention to secure a booking at Max’s Kansas City and to get signed to Mercury’s punk subsidiary Blank. The result is an enduring classic, though The Modern Dance’s lackluster retail fortunes caused Mercury to promptly spurn them; the terrific Dub Housing emerged via new label Chrysalis.

This is all documented on Fire’s prior Elitism for the People 1975-1978; it tidily corrals Ubu’s Hearthan 45s, the aforementioned studio efforts and a live show from Max’s circa 1977 into one of the finest box sets of 2015. Newcomers slain by Elitism will be wondering if Architecture harnesses the same level of excellence; the short answer is no, though the chronology does start almost as strongly.

Apparently Pere Ubu’s commercial standing was so bleak circa 1979 that New Picnic Time was issued by Chrysalis only in Europe, with copies trickling in domestically as imports. To the group’s credit they responded to the consumer indifference by seemingly altering their cooperating procedures not at all; in fact its opener, which somewhere along the way ditched its original name “Have Shoes Will Walk” and shaved the parenthesis off current title “The Fabulous Sequel,” melds David Thomas’ fringe-ranting to off-kilter post-punk.

However, Scott Krauss’ rhythm is driving enough that it became New Picnic Time’s sole single. “49 Guitars and One Girl” increases the kit battering and string splatter of Tom Herman as Thomas sharpens the theatricality of his role as vocalist; amongst it all, Allen Ravenstine’s synth practically steals the show.

Over a quarter century later Ubu’s synthesizer component can still sneak up and startle, and after two succinct cuts “A Small Dark Cloud” spreads out and ups the abstraction, with Ravenstine integral to its success. Impulse buyers of New Picnic Time perhaps heard the contents as mere fucking around, but with extended exposure the sheer precision becomes undeniable.

While the operatic singing, electro-flutter and squeak toy digression ixnay the orthodoxy, “Small Was Fast” emphasizes Ubu’s rocking side through the combo sturdiness of the drumming and Tony Maimone’s bass. And if New Picnic Time is often considered an extension of Dub Housing’s potency in the midst of refinement, the hovering art-rock of side one’s closer “All the Dogs Are Barking” (an aura enhanced by Maimone’s avant-classical piano) foreshadows ensuing affairs.

“One Less Worry” Offers a quote from Alfred E. Neuman and is a ripe example of Thomas’ thespian qualities; here, his stressed-out delivery gets spiked with exclamation points as the instrumentation coheres into a delectably tangled groove. “Make Hay” follows, alternating between Herman’s jittery elasticity and an amiably reggae-tinged framework.

“Goodbye” slows the pace and cultivates a tense atmosphere deepened by Thomas’ organ playing and Ravenstine’s inescapable synth, its corroded ooze even more prevalent at the start of the next track; borrowing lyrics from poet Vachel Lindsay, “Voice of the Sand” reinforces Thomas’ literary tendency with whispers and intrigue. It leads to “Kingdom Come” (originally titled “Jehovah’s Kingdom Comes!”), it’s approachable finale (in context, natch) forming a nice circularity with “The Fabulous Sequel.”

It also represented the end of an era; 1980’s The Art of Walking saw founding guitarist Herman out and Red Krayola’s Mayo Thompson in his place as they debuted for Rough Trade, commencing a two album run that’s overall ranking is somewhat less esteemed. Indeed, some persist in evaluating this period as the beginning of unevenness in the band’s discography.

Others rate the combination of Ubu and Thompson as an out-rock dream team; while not going that far, this writer feels the relationship has been underrated. It does mark a tangible adjustment from post-punk to art-rock, with The Art of Walking’s opener “Go” decreasing the surliness as Thomas’ growing comfort as a frontman rises amidst tidier, cyclical guitar and spurts of wiggling synth.

Although it doesn’t climb into the top tier of the group’s material, “Rhapsody in Pink” underlines Thomas’ continued blossoming as a performer; he’s multifaceted, sui generis, and in total synch with his counterparts, and he notably excels where numerous faux-beatniky poetically disposed mic-hogs have floundered. Next are two instrumentals serving to undercut any creeping vocalist supremacy (Thomas contributes on organ); soundscapes of careful design, “Arabia” and “Young Miles in the Basement” ultimately display disinterest in bending toward marketplace norms.

This isn’t to suggest Ubu had abandoned audience-graspable stabs. It seems no singles were culled from The Art of Walking, but “Go” and the prickly rocking of “Misery Goats” could’ve been. The flip begins with “Loop,” the first of two pieces featuring Thompson’s lead vocals; it’s unsurprisingly Krayola-ish, and no doubt a number of Ubu freaks deemed the sound of their affection effectively encroached upon by an outside creative force, while the art-funky “Rounders” gesticulates to the neighborhood of Talking Heads.

Due to a live version from the new wave concert film Urgh! A Music War, “Birdies” is one of Ubu’s higher profile songs, and as an accurate representation of their propensity for fringe rocking (the Urgh! take is even wilder) it likely enticed and repelled novices in equal measure. Whacking a drum and bellowing like a champ, Thomas dominates “Lost in Art” as Thompson’s voice guides the left-field disco-cabaret of “Horses” (the song previously appeared in a significantly different incarnation on Thompson’s splendid 1970 LP Corky’s Debt to His Father)

Solidifying Ubu’s stature as ingenious outsiders, closer “Crush This Horn” finds the titular instrument beset by electronics, static and a mechanical rhythm as Krauss blows valiantly to the end. And the end it was; The Art of Walking finished, Krauss departed (temporarily), with his replacement in the drum seat ex-Feelie Anton Fier.

Song of the Bailing Man further compartmentalizes Ubu’s output. Its first track “The Long Walk Home” wields brisk momentum, but the record possesses less rock edge than before, the opener’s sophisto-jazz midsection heightening the art-rock sensibility, or more aptly art-pop as evidenced in “Use of a Dog.” The quick moving “Petrified” flaunts familiar Ubu aspects, with Ravenstine as vital to the equation as ever, but in sum the LP is less discomfiting if not necessarily less eccentric; “Stormy Weather” avoids quirk courtesy of Fier’s superb piano thundering.

To be sure, Fier’s marimba and Maimone’s jazzy bass make “West Side Story” a more inviting proposition than the vast majority of the Hearthan/Mercury-era work, and many of its cuts lean to the concise, the leisurely weave of side one’s closer “Thoughts That Go by Steam” and the flip’s multi-tiered Steve Reich-inflected “A Day Such as This” being exceptions.

Throughout Song of the Bailing Man Thomas distills the balance of theatrics and recognizably pop/rock vocalizing, the two combining very well on the speedy and energetic “Big Ed’s Used Farms” and the nervous shenanigans of “The Vulgar Boatman Bird.” Thompson’s presence is felt but connects less assertively (he sings no leads), and altogether Ubu’s early danger is diminished.

“My Hat,” nearly capsizing at one moment and jaunty the next, borders on the overly worked-out, and the impact of “Horns Are a Dilemma” is slightly muted by an abundance of finesse, but the whole is an achievement most bands would kill strangers to attain and is an ample dose of a specific lineup; their only release with Fier, it rounds out Ubu’s sojourn with Thompson in solid fashion.

Pere Ubu’s breakout triumphs undoubtedly landed them into many observers’ Visionary category, and as groundbreakers responsible for the micro-genre known as avant-garage the tag can register as wholly appropriate. There is a caveat; visionary sound is frequently pegged as flowing savant-like from its source, with listeners, fellow musicians and even the creators figuring it all out in due time.

But Ubu clearly understood exactly what they were doing. After five LPs approximately an album’s worth of extra stuff had accumulated, with a third of this set’s odds and ends collection Architectural Salvage devoted to alternate mixes; the most enticing of the three is “All the Dogs Are Barking,” though the distinct takes of “Horses” and “Rounder” are welcome.

“Humor Me” reemerges from The Modern Dance in a swell live reading from a ’78 show at London College of Printing; coupled with “The Book Is on the Table,” which replaces Thomas with a French lesson recorded by Ann Titolo, it first appeared on the b-side to Chrysalis’ “The Fabulous Sequel” single in ’79.

Both helped to comprise the non-Hearthan portion of the ’85 Ubu comp Terminal Tower alongside the buoyant eccentricity of “Not Happy” and the gangly sprint of “Lonesome Cowboy Dave” from an ‘81 45. For “Arabian Nights” and “Tribute to Miles” Thomas quickly added vocals to The Art of Walking’s “Arabia” and “Young Miles in the Basement” in response to Rough Trade’s reported displeasure.

Post Song of the Bailing Man Ubu took a six year break as everyone remained busy, especially Thomas, whose ‘80s solo work would make a dandy companion to Fire’s work thus far. Architecture of Language 1979-1982 may not be as essential as what’s found on its predecessor, but it forms an important addition to post-punk/art-rock shelves and its availability is a boon for the collective intellect of the present day.

New Picnic Time:

The Art of Walking:

Song of the Bailing Man:

Architectural Salvage:


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